Literary daybook, July 3

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published July 3, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction On July 3, V.I. and Morrell talk with Señora Mercedes.
-- "Hard Times" (1999)
by Sara Paretsky

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in literary history
On this day in 1883, Franz Kafka was born in Prague. Few writers have been so closely linked to their home and city, or made so much from them, as Kafka. But for the months spent in sanitariums -- Kafka died of tuberculosis at the age of 40 -- and a half year spent with a girlfriend, he lived in Prague and with his parents all his life. He worked as a claims adjustor for an insurance company, writing by night but publishing little.

According to Kafka's own self-description, he was "fretful, melancholy, untalkative, dissatisfied and sickly" -- a man made this way, and made into a writer, by his father: "My writing was all about you; all I did there, after all, was to bemoan what I could not bemoan upon your breast. It was an intentionally long-drawn-out leave-taking from you." This is part of "Letter to My Father," Kafka's 56-page attempt, at the age of 36, to explain why he had always lived in fear of "this giant of a man, my father, the ultimate judge."

In "The Metamorphosis," the dutiful, live-at-home son, Gregor, wakes to find himself a beetle about 3 feet long. Wanting to go to work, and knowing that his family depends on him to do so, Gregor works hard to roll over, ambulate, and turn the key of the locked bedroom door with his sticky mandibles. In the face of his parents and the clerk from work who has come to inquire about his absence, Gregor sees that he is grotesque -- and a disappointment:

"He had to edge himself slowly round the near half of the double door, and to do it very carefully if he was not to fall plump upon his back just on the threshold. He was still carrying out this difficult manoeuvre, with no time to observe anything else, when he heard the chief clerk utter a loud 'Oh!' -- it sounded like a gust of wind -- and now he could see the man, standing as he was nearest to the door, clapping one hand before his open mouth and slowly backing away as if driven by some invisible steady pressure. His mother -- in spite of the chief clerk's being there her hair was still undone and sticking up in all directions -- first clasped her hands and looked at his father, then took two steps towards Gregor and fell on the floor among her outspread skirts, her face quite hidden on her breast. His father knotted his fist with a fierce expression on his face as if he meant to knock Gregor back into his room, then looked uncertainly round the living room, covered his eyes with his hands and wept till his great chest heaved."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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